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* Yemeni forces carry out house-to-house sweeps against rebels * Sweeps target Shi'ite rebels revolting against central gov't
(Adds details of operation, background)
SANAA, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Yemeni forces killed 19 rebels in a military operation to rid a northern town of Shi'ite rebel hideouts, and arrested 25 more, the country's security apparatus said.
Security forces mounted house-to-house sweeps in the old city of Saada, where rebels from the Houthi tribe had been taking refuge in homes, the security apparatus said on a government website.
It did not say if there were any civilian casualties.
The operation, dubbed "Blow to the Head", was continuing against rebels who have fought Yemen's government since 2004, complaining of social, economic and religious marginalisation. The government did not say when the sweeps began.
Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, came to the foreground of U.S.-led efforts to battle militancy after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a failed Dec. 25 plot to bomb a U.S. plane. [ID:nLDE60602A]
As well as its fight against the Shi'ite rebels, the Yemeni government also faces separatist sentiment in the south and is fighting a resurgent al Qaeda in multiple provinces. The Shi'ite revolt drew in Saudi Arabia after a cross-border rebel raid into the world's biggest oil exporter in November.
The United States and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will take advantage of Yemen's instability to spread its operations to the neighbouring kingdom and beyond. Yemen itself produces a small amount of oil.
Placed strategically on the Arabian Peninsula's southern rim, Yemen has shrinking oil reserves and faces a water crisis. Its population of 23 million is expected to double in the next 20 years. (Reporting by Mohamed Sudam; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)